This coming Thursday President Obama will give a much-anticipated speech in Cairo ostensibly addressed to the Muslim world. Publications throughout America and the West have spilt a great deal of ink in analyzing and assessing the implications of this speech, all of which have come more or less to the same conclusion: the speech will challenge President Obama in being able to address the key issues that drive the Muslim world. Yet, one thing that they have all ignored is who exactly is anticipating this speech? The answer, in the Middle East anyway, is no one, with the notable exception of government controlled media.
In various conversations and meetings throughout the Middle East, whether in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, Manama, Dubai or Doha, no one here is putting any weight behind what is being billed in the American media as nothing short of a watershed event. This is not to say that the region as a whole is cynical. On the contrary, with its history of colonial occupation, and dictatorial rule stretching from Morocco to Iraq everyone here clings to hope or rather the promise of hope. The Muslim world was overwhelmingly supportive of Obama's candidacy and is still enthusiastically supportive. In some respects, President Obama does represent change, even if that change has been a more moderated tone towards the Muslim world. Ameliorative rhetoric is necessary from the United States, but more needed are the actions and policies that foster and cement real change.
To Khalid, my Cairene taxi driver who as a medical doctor can't find work as a physician, what value will Obama's words have? Or to the men and women of Iraq and Afghanistan who have had their nations dismantled? The short answer is not much, if at all. The simple fact is that the socio-economic and political woes of the Middle East and the Muslim world are very real.
Within Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter and of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East, unemployment is believed to be around 25% including women, according to HSBC. In Cairo alone in 2008 there were riots in the streets when the price of bread skyrocketed due to inflation and everyday Cairenes could no longer afford to eat. What of the poorest nations like Yemen?
The Brookings Institute estimates that throughout the Middle East and North Africa the aggregate population is roughly 300 million, with 50-65% of the population being under 24 years of age. There is no infrastructural support providing this generation with education or jobs with which to support themselves. The question for the Obama administration is not what happens in the next four years of his term, but rather what happens in the next decade such that this is not a lost generation which resents American support of their governments when they cannot feed themselves.
While the hydrocarbon rich nations of the Muslim world, like Qatar and the UAE, have now begun deploying their wealth at home to address some of these issues they still have a long way to go. Saudi Arabia, for example, has embarked upon a vast multi-billion education agenda, building with it what is billed to be the region's best technical university with talent poached from the likes of UC Berkeley, MIT and Caltech, King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (KAUST). But where will graduates of KAUST find employment?
The problem is that we often only either see the mega-structures of Dubai and items purchased with oil-wealth, or the images of war and its effects in the Muslim world. This ignores the larger and ever growing problems that individuals in the region face on a daily basis, that of surviving -- which is not to ignore the very real problems of war and occupation. The simple fact is that the Muslim world wants what everyone else wants: to provide for their children, to educate, feed and clothe them, and offer them a chance at a better life. Unfortunately, for the overwhelming majority of the region this is simply not possible under current conditions. And this must soon change or America in a generation will be forced to confront a much more serious problem than IEDs in Iraq or effigy burnings.
President Obama is perhaps the orator of his generation, yet what the Muslim world needs now are not the hollow promises of "hope" and "change" but meaningful, actionable change that positively transforms their lives. Until then, Obama's words, however articulate and precisely delivered, will continue to be ignored through the din.